Amates 15, 1277. Tagrica Silk Square. Underside district, Ishnanor. Walking to a safer place because there was a lot of explaining to do…
Tyre stroked his beard, watching me with that measuring look of his while we navigated the late afternoon Silk Square market crowds. It wasn’t me he was measuring; it was the whale of an explanation I just gave him.
The colorful shade sail cloth rustled overhead. Light Planus breezes coming through the ancient lava tube were more active than usual today. Market smells from roasted meat, fresh baked cinnamon breads and incense mingled with Underside’s ever present musty scent. Silk Square wasn’t silent with the chatter of patrons, but Tyre was. He finally spoke up after a minute of walking.
“So, it’ll be a race then,” he said at last. “Winner takes the prize.” Tyre waved a hand, making small circles in the air. “That devil take it all Ancient Order thing.”
“Automatic Crystal of the Eclipse,” I said.
Tyre nodded a little and pointed at me.
“Yes, that, “ he finished, then paused at a café stall to get his bolat bag filled with fresh tea.
Ki stopped to study the merchant’s hand painted wooden sign of available drinks. After a brief glance, he turned away.
“I told her it was dangerous. Double so because it’s somewhere down among the plague ridden Long Deep.” Ki shot a stern look at me. “Quit poking that bruise around your eye. Physician’s orders.”
I knew he had a point about the bruise, but I was losing the fight against a bad mood.
“Fine, but it hurts,” I snapped. “It feels like I got hit with a brick.”
“You did. A brick with two legs.” He folded his arms over his chest as the tip of his tail swatted the air twice. With a nod toward the reddish brown root he had given me, he added, “now, drown it all woman, chew your awari root like I prescribed instead of toying with it. It’ll help with the pain and keep that black eye from swelling.” Ki sighed. “You’re just lucky you’ve got a hard head.”
I replied with a sour grimace, then bit off a chunk of the root in his direction. The chewy honey-pepper flavor of raw awari root was an acquired taste.
At the stall, Tyre smiled, then paid the grizzled tea merchant, who grinned back and gave a slight bow. Tyre raised his bag in a toast to the man, then turned back to our conversation.
“I agree. It’s dangerous to head back over to Long Deep.”
Kiyosi frowned at me while he gestured with both hands at Tyre.
“See? He agrees!” The realization of that statement sank in. Ki shot a look of astonished horror at the smuggler. “Wait, what? We agree?”
Tyre grinned, then took a drink of tea from his bolat bag. After that, he licked his lips.
“I know! I’m as surprised as you are, Ki!” The smuggler gently elbowed Ki while we continued on our way. “It was the last thing I ever expected.”
One more drink, then Tyre replaced the stopper back in the bag and placed it on his belt. The old smuggler rubbed his hands together. A glint of mischief shone in his eyes.
“So, when do we leave? I can have the Sheldrake up and ready within the hour. Certainly, before the evening tide strikes high.”
Ki rubbed his eyes.
“Gods of the Cresting Tides, save me from smugglers.”
Tyre reached over to plant a meaty, reassuring hand on Kiyosi’s shoulder.
“Ah, but they haven’t yet, my good physician. So why worry?” His grin widened. “Now, Tela, when do we leave?”
I was laughing too hard to reply, even if it made the bruise around my left eye hurt. This type of conversation went on between the two of them every time before we set out on a trip. By now, it was some sort of strange ritual for them, and really, I didn’t see the need to interrupt. Besides, it took my mind off my own private concerns, and nightmares, of the Long Deep.
Once I had the laughing fit under control, I shrugged.
“Soon. Before we go anywhere, we need supplies. I’ve ordered Travelcake but we’ll need more than that.”
“Oh, I can take care of the rest,” Tyre offered. “Other than supplies, what else is left?”
I quirked an eyebrow while I imagined him moving through the Silk Square while he gathered supplies with all the subtly of a Planus buffalo moving through a porcelain shop.
“Ransacking the Windtracer Records Hall for anything I can find on the Automatic Crystal of the Eclipse that Ihodis hasn’t mentioned.” I sighed. “Mostly because I hate going blind into an expedition.”
Tyre gave Ki one last pat on the shoulder, then nodded sagely at me.
“Wise as always.”
He rubbed his nose, obviously thinking.
“In between stocking up, I’ll look over my routes. I’ve charted two new ones since the last time I’ve taken you, or anyone, that way. This’ll give us three choices to work with if the Planus winds change direction on us.”
“Is one faster than the others? What’s the difference?” Ki asked, toying with the head of his new walking stick.
Tyre raised his eyebrows at that and pursed his lips while we wandered through Underside toward the Port Side district.
“Faster? No. They’re all quick, but take about the same time. Those routes are based on the direction the prairie wind is taking across Planus and what I might be carrying for trade. There’s two new farming villages in the deep plains.” Tyre winked at us. “So there may be a stop or two along the way, nothing more than that, though.”
The smuggler’s expression turned serious.
“Also, all of what you’ve told me explains why the Crimson Company was so eager for my maps. They’re looking for a fast route there, too.” He stroked his beard again. “That tells a lot about what’s driving them.”
I swapped a look with Ki.
“It does? I assumed it was money. What do you mean?” I asked.
Tyre grabbed the lapels of his long coat before he frowned slightly at my question. It made him look almost scholarly.
“Well, the Crimson Company is mercenary company. A business that peddles a fighting force. If you run that sort of business and rough up merchant captains like myself, you soon run out of people that will carry you and your troops anywhere.”
The smuggler smiled grimly.
“So, normally, they would’ve tried to buy my maps or just hire me to carry them. If either of those offers had failed, then I would expect them to try what they did. But no, they started right with the mugging. That’s important.”
I grunted, then watched the path ahead through the market while we walked. It was clustered with merchants and customers working out late afternoon deals. The steady chatter of people was a humming backdrop that helped me concentrate. Another light breeze drifted through Underside and its underground marketplace.
“I didn’t think of that. So you believe they’re having to deliver this by a certain day?” I asked.
Ki pursed his lips.
“Or they’re under a threat to ‘get it done quickly or else’ by this Lord Marius that Ihodis mentioned,” he added.
That prompted me to give Ki an astonished look.
“What? Vargas and his Crimson Company? Professional ruin poacher Vincent Vargas] be afraid of some baron of all things?”
Tyre shook head. “Tela, you’ve been through far too much to tell me you don’t already understand that everyone is afraid of something. Even Vargas.”
It was Kiyosi’s turn to look thoughtful. The faint hint of a frown that had started a second ago now shadowed his face.
“It must be really something impressive to put a scare into Vargas and his mercenaries.”
I didn’t reply. Tyre had given me a lot more to think about. We continued down the Silk Square, walking for the Port Side district above Underside. Ki was musing over what medical supplies he would need for the trip in between asking Tyre about the tea he purchased. I kept to my own thoughts.
Vargas, and my dislike for the thieving sadist, had colored my view. I’ll be the first to admit it had distracted me. Then there was Long Deep, which loomed large in the back of my mind.
Sure, I played it off with a laugh and a brash comment. But I’d be lying to myself if I said I wasn’t concerned. I still carried the scars from that expedition. Scars in my memories and along my left shoulder and ribcage. Those scars were permanent and weren’t going away. I even tried paying for a magical cure, which didn’t do a thing. I still hear the screams from the people I lost the last time I was at Long Deep.
I shook my head. That caravan of thoughts wasn’t getting me anywhere. After a deep breath, I focused on what Tyre had said.
It made sense. Too much sense. But I had no answer for the ‘why’. Ihodis mentioned that Baron Marius Apollinare had dreams of a ‘New Ancient Order’ and that he wanted to remake it on his terms. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but ‘on his own terms’ could mean a lot of things. Some of those things could be very bad.
“We need to set out tomorrow. Soon and fast,” I decided.
This broke up the conversation between Ki and Tyre about the subtle variations of tea.
“Good and done,” Tyre replied. “The Sheldrake will be waiting marsh-side at the camp-ports, ready to move. Should I send my usual fee and contract to the Windtracers?”
I nodded. “Yes. Same as last time.”
Ki was squinting and really scrutinizing me now. I never liked it when he did that. It felt like I was being diagnosed.
“What?” I asked after an uncomfortable few seconds.
“Tomorrow doesn’t give us much time to research the Automatic Crystal of the Eclipse,” he said. “You’ve thought of something, or just realized something. What is it?”
I pursed my lips, then shook my head.
“What Tyre said makes far too much sense, and I’ve been too distracted to see it. I’ll explain once we’ve set off.”
Ki, who still had that look on his face, nodded.
“All right. So where to from here?”
“While Tyre gets the supplies and what we need, you and I dive into Windtracer records, even any copies sent by the Archivists Guild from over in Centrum, for anything that even mentions the Automatic Crystal of the Eclipse or this Baron Marius Apollinare.”
Tension flared in the back of my shoulders. A premonition? It might be, but I ignored it.
“Because what we don’t know might kill us.”